TV, Writing

Don’t Mention the Comedy: FAWLTY TOWERS and Reactionary Cultural Politics

Whether ten years old or close to a hundred, we have all seen Fawlty Towers at some point in our lives. We have either binge watched the series, casually caught it on a satellite channel or streaming service, or even seen clips on one of the many comedy panel or discussion shows over the years with talking heads discussing the brilliance of John Cleese’s monstrous creation Basil Fawlty.

What, though, is Fawlty Towers really *about*? What are all our comedies *about*, whether in the UK with a long-standing tradition of legendary comedic creations or the US with their penchant for long-running, familiar series? Every drama is about something and comedy is no different. The jokes are born from an idea or theme or societal construct the writer is looking to explore. One Foot in the Grave, which I’m currently examining episode by episode, sees David Renwick unpicking the listlessness of the working man at the tail end of Thatcherite neoliberalism after Victor Meldrew is displaced by a heartless corporate system. Only Fools and Horses was a fantasy of working class meritocracy, of Derek, and in a different way Rodney, Trotter overcoming their background of poverty and struggle to try and prove their worth within an elitist class system where the deck is stacked against them.

Following the surge of protests across the world after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there has been a swift trickle-down effect in terms of racial politics which has proven, this week, to be on some level ‘knee-jerk’. Britbox and BBC iPlayer started by removing the 2000’s Matt Lucas & David Walliams’ series Little Britain, which was always festooned with sketches that were politically incorrect even back then, citing that “times have changed”, while Netflix subsequently pulled The League of Gentlemen and The Mighty Boosh as both display characters who engage in what would be termed ‘blackface’. Catch up service UKTV subsequently removed the well-known Fawlty Towers episode The Germans, featuring Basil’s infamous line “Don’t mention the war!”, due to the overt racism displayed by the character, and the use of racial slurs by an ageing colonial character. This has been questioned by some who feel the reactionary cultural politics of the moment has gone too far.

I’m wondering the same. I understand some of these examples. The Germans, however, is an example in which context is missing, and with comedy, context is king.
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Essays, TV

ROSEANNE: Social Responsibility on Television

If this feels like an addendum to my earlier piece about separating art from the artist, that’s because fate has taken a twist in that direction over the last couple of days. Roseanne, ABC’s successful re-launch of the hit 1980’s/1990’s sitcom starring Roseanne Barr as the matriarch of a middle-American family, has been cancelled after the star herself wrote a horrendously racist tweet about former Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett which rightly drew derision from all quarters. ABC’s entertainment president Channing Dungey swiftly responded with this brief statement:

Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.

While many have applauded Dungey and ABC for such a swift and decisive rejection of racist rhetoric by a star on their network, some such as Kathryn VanArendonk have made the point that the damage has already been done, that ABC don’t have a spotless record in terms of positive portrayals of race recently, and while Roseanne started as a huge hit upon its return, she subsequently had shed almost 10 million viewers by the season finale. Perhaps ABC found the excuse they’d been looking for to can the show.

Regardless of the reasons, Roseanne Barr’s banishment to the nether regions of disgraced celebrities is, without doubt, a long-time coming. While being a pro-Trump supporter for many would be condemnation enough, Barr has often gone one step further in promoting wild, divisive conspiracy theories which further suggest she has extremist views in line with many right-wing individuals who have taken Trump’s Presidency as a sign that their rhetoric has been validated. It should already have been clear that the gift of a revived TV sitcom career was misjudged and highly inappropriate.

This goes back to my previous piece, in which I used Roseanne as an example of being unable to separate art from the potentially unsavoury off-screen personalities of the people involved.

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